OLCA en la Prensa: Santiago Times - January 26, 2005

Environmentalist Says Government In Cahoots With Angelini
Tom Burgis (editor@santiagotimes.cl)

The closure of the Celulosa Valdivia wood pulp plant has been denounced as a governmental “publicity stunt” by the leader of the environmental group fighting to have the plant shut down permanently.

“This was a prearranged pact on behalf of the government and the company that existed before the decision to close the plant was taken by COREMA,” Lucio Cuenca of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts, which forms part of the Coordination for the Protection of the Cruces River Nature Sanctuary, told The Santiago Times. “It was a publicity stunt to curry public opinion.”

Production at the US$1.2 billion plant in Region X was halted eight days ago after the Regional Environmental Commission (COREMA) found it had breeched 19 environmental regulations and exceeded permitted production levels (ST, Jan. 19). But it emerged Tuesday that the plant could be reopened within a week if it demonstrates it has modified production procedures and signs a new commitment to minimize environmental damage. Cuenca said the closure was orchestrated to coincide with a meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to discuss Chile’s environmental record.

In August, a team of experts from the OECD – an exclusive club of 30 of the world’s richest nations, to which Chile has aspired since 1995 – concluded that Chile’s level of environmental regulation was well below that required for entry (ST, Aug. 10, 2004). On Monday, OECD officials in Paris met Chilean delegates, including Paulina Saball, executive director of the National Environmental Commission (CONAMA), to examine Chile’s progress. Cuenca attacked Saball for neglecting to mention her scheduled trip to France when he and other environmentalists and Region X residents met her to demand the closure of the Valdivia plant Jan. 12 (ST, Jan. 13).

“We were told nothing,” he said. “The government concealed information. We have had no opportunity to make our case before OECD.” The plant is run by Celulosa Arauco and Constitución (Celco), one of the world’s largest forestry companies, and a subsidiary of the Angelini Group, one of the three giant commercial conglomerates in Chile. Cuenca said that President Ricardo Lagos met Anacleto Angelini, the group’s billionaire founder, on Jan. 13, five days before COREMA’s decision to close the plant. While it had already emerged that the president’s office notified Angelini in advance on the day the closure was announced, news of the earlier meeting, Cuenca argued, indicated a concerted public relations exercise. He joined economist and conservationist Marcel Claude in accusing the government of bowing to political and economic pressure and ignoring damage to the environment and public health (ST, Jan. 13).

Celco said the plant’s closure came as a “total surprise” and was “disproportionate and unjust.” “Lagos is working from political calculations,” Cuenca said. La Moneda declined to comment Tuesday night. Angelini, an Italian who emigrated to Chile after the Second World War, has a net worth of US$2.5 billion dollars and is the kingpin of Chilean forestry.

He acquired the Chilean oil giant Copec at a drastically reduced price in 1985 as part of Augusto Pinochet’s second wave of privatizations and has seen his financial might and economic clout grow ever since. He has the ear of many senior politicians in the country, including the Zaldívar brothers, shareholders in the Angelini Group, senators and central figures in the Christian Democrats, the largest party in Congress.

Angelini turned 90 last week and watched as Celco hemorrhaged US$1 million a day in lost revenue while the Valdivia plant’s doors remained locked. The earlier suspension of construction work at a similar plant in Itata, also found to have flaunted regulations, compounded his misery (ST, Jan. 14).

But now it seems he has grounds for renewed optimism. José Luis García-Huidobro, director of CONAMA for Region X, said Tuesday that “if (the company) were to submit a report tomorrow, it could be possible that the plant would reopen in a week’s time.”

“It depends absolutely on the plant,” he told The Santiago Times. COREMA and the regional Environmental Regulation Committee are awaiting a full report from the company, in which it is required to demonstrate that it will operate within Resolution on Environmental Qualification (RCA) in the future. The committee will review the report once it is received and decide whether to permit the plant to reopen. Negotiations are also under way for a permanent auditing body to be set up with a specific remit to oversee operations at the plant, García said.

A temporary international monitoring group will be created to keep watch over the plant in the period after it reopens. “They are going to get Celulosa Arauco to sign a piece of paper,” Cuenca said. Celulosa Arauco has signed lots of pieces of paper – they have been lying, always lying. There is no reason to expect that to change suddenly.”

Celco has a track record of falling foul of environmental regulations. In April the Valdivia plant was closed for eight days for failing to pay its municipal permit fee. The emission of malodorous gasses, the illicit use of chloride pesticides and administrative shortcomings have cost the company some US$36,000 in fines, though critics say that figure is derisory.

Environmentalists say emissions from the plant are responsible for the 120 critical cases of toxic poisoning recorded by health services in San José de la Mariquina, a small town 47 km northwest of Valdivia. The Coordination will continue to protest against the plant until it is permanently closed, Cuenca said. It will hold a public meeting Monday night at the Centro Cultural de España in Providencia to discuss future action.

Citizens groups in Valdivia have slated mass protests for the coming weeks. On Feb. 2, they will take to the streets to mark World Wetland Day, demanding protection for the Carlos Andwanter Nature Sanctuary in the Cruces River basin. The sanctuary is protected under the international Ramsar Convention for the protection of wetlands and was until last year home to 6,000 rare black-necked swans.

The swan population has been nearly destroyed after their habitat was contaminated. Only 2,000 remain, and environmentalists insist the damage was caused by Celulosa Valdivia, which dumps waste water and chlorine into the Cruces River. A further demonstration is planned for Feb. 9, the plant’s first anniversary.